Juan Valdez – the man, the myth, the legend

“You know Juan Valdez: He’s been the rugged, mustachioed icon of Colombian coffee since 1960. That’s when a Madison Avenue ad agency, realizing the potential of campesino cachet, invented a name even gringos could pronounce, and hired an actor to play the role of a humble coffee grower. The TV commercials asked, “Where do the beans come from?” and Juan Valdez would answer, strolling through lushly planted hills, “I hand-picked them myself.” – Salon

Well, that last line is not entirely true. The fictional character represents a $1.7 billion dollar industry made of over 550,000 Colombian cafeteros (or coffee growers) which makes Colombia the third largest coffee exporter in the world. I’m not talking about robusta beans either, I’m talking 100% arabica (pronounced air-rab-ika).

Let’s go over the difference real quickly. Robusta is all caffine and no flavor, it is grown at lower altitudes, in coarser soil and can be harvested year-round. Arabica is quite the opposite as it is mostly strong in flavor and not in caffine, it can only be grown at high altitudes in fine soil in addition to only being harvested once a year.

Now, back to Mr. Valdez. The Juan Valdez character is used as an ingredient brand, to specifically denote coffee beans that are only grown and harvested in Colombia. Part of the advertising campaign includes educating consumers about the merits of Colombian-grown and harvested coffee beans, “including how soil components, altitude, varieties and harvesting methods create good flavor.” The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia is entirely owned and controlled by Colombia’s coffee farmers.

Not just coffee

The brand proved so successful that coffee shops were opened throughout Colombia in 2002 sporting the logo everyone recognizes. During the 60’s and 70’s, a few outlets were opened in Argentina and Spain but closed in the mid-eighties and Juan Valdez as a coffeehouse didn’t make a comeback until Starbucks had proven successful as a worldwide model.

In early 2004, the Colombian government put up $2.2 billion dollars to fund a US operation as well as coffeehouses in Japan and Europe. This initial offering was helped along by Colombia’s state-run bank which put up $100 million of their own. Nowadays, the signature cafés can be found in Washington DC, New York, Seattle, Philadelphia and Madrid, Spain. More shops are scheduled for Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, Barcelona, Valencia, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam in Europe, and in Latin America.

Talking specifics, with a pound of coffee from Starbucks at $1.20 several years back, a Colombian farmer would only expect to see about one penny per cup sold. By offering their own brand backed by their own coffee growers, each farmer receives 4 to 5 cents per cup sold. That’s a significant jump.

Other fun facts, etc

In 2005, the US magazine Advertising Week saw the Juan Valdez icon voted the most important advertising icon in the US, beating out the likes of Ronald McDonald, the Energizer bunny and Nike.

For the Jim Carrey film ‘Bruce Almighty’, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation paid $1.5 million for a spot in the film featuring the famous Colombian character in an effort to revitalize the image. A poor-quality clip can be found here.

Here’s a short news clip on Juan Valdez vs. Starbucks.

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